The recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi likely represents a subtle but meaningful shift in the extremist threat to American interests: the catastrophic attacks on American soil at the start of this century are likely to be much less common than the attacks abroad that we witnessed in the 1990s. A consequence of this shift should be a reconsideration of not just our counter-terrorism strategy, but a re-examination of the risk response calculus that we, as a country, are willing to accept in the course of our pursuit, promotion, and protection of interests abroad.
Ansar al-Sharia, the lead suspect for the attack on the U.S. Consulate, might share a similar ideology with al Qaeda (i.e., establishing Sharia law), but it differs from al Qaeda in that it -- like many other small, loosely formed militias that can be found in other areas of the world -- doesn't appear to be focused on achieving a strategic objective outside of the areas they inhabit or want to inhabit. Instead, they are effectively looking to fill a vacuum left by an absent or ineffective government, outside of al Qaeda's immediate reach, or trying to carve out a space that they can lay claim to (like the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the early 1990s).
In the case of al Qaeda, we were confronted with a large, well-funded, strategic, and periodically effective network that sought to challenge and confront the United States and its allies on several fronts, not the least of which was a battle for hearts and minds throughout the Muslim world. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia, as they are currently understood, are not operating on the same level. Yes, the international press and online fora such as YouTube allow even small groups a degree of notoriety and fame, but -- regardless of public perception -- the real risk assessment revolves around the motivations, ambitions, and capabilities of the group.
That said, watching for the evolution and alignment of these small, like-minded groups is important, but it is a problem that we, as a nation, understand. It was from relatively small-scale attacks against "soft" diplomatic targets in Iraq that Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi first made a name for himself and his loosely knitted network in jihadist circles. After joining al Qaeda in 2004, Zarqawi leveraged funding, personnel and the brand to galvanize support for his operations. Still, Zarqawi remained focused on engaging U.S. forces inside of Iraq, which at times did not align with al Qaeda's central leadership strategy of executing attacks on US soil. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been rumored to have a possible role in the Benghazi attack. Even if AQIM played a role in the attack, the intelligence collection challenge remains in targeting small, loosely affiliated groups that act as the executioners with localized agendas.
The Haqqani network in Pakistan -- which has links to al Qaeda and the Taliban -- is another example of an organization whose members live among the community, operate businesses and focus on a localized agenda. According the Combating Terrorism Center's report, the Haqqani network functions autonomously, shares the same ideology as al Qaeda, while concentrating on maintaining local control of territory. In fact, the Haqqani network shares a connection with a wide-range of actors in order to enhance their tactical operations.
The question for the United States is: how much of our resources, both money and personnel, do we devote to this problem? There is an assumed amount of risk encompassed in diplomatic and intelligence work. Not every militia or loosely affiliated network is a threat to the U.S. national interests and they certainly are not on par with the threat that al Qaeda represented during the last decade. If it's a local threat, the host government should have more responsibility for and influence over the issue than the U.S. We are not and cannot be the world's police force. There are legitimate questions around what types of support and how much support we provide to host governments, but that should be determined by a cold calculation of the potential of the threat.
A meaningful variable in the risk assessment is how much can we expect from local governments, especially those fresh from the throes of the Arab Spring? Nascent governments that have not yet achieved a degree of equilibrium or established functioning institutions are likely going to struggle to understand -- let alone support and police -- their own population. For example, the United States struggles to find fugitives on it's own 'Most Wanted' list despite having large and often connected human -- and computer -- law enforcement networks; how can we expect these new governments to have everything wired from the beginning? Libyans are likely to feel some degree of shame and are likely to fear retaliation from the United States, possibly causing them to look for plausible explanations -- e.g., deflect blame by exclaiming there were warnings of deteriorating security, blaming foreigners for the attack -- rather than simply explaining that the security situation in Libya, let alone Benghazi, has been in varying degrees of disarray for the past year.
Going forward, the U.S. needs to embrace a new calculus for assessing and responding to these loosely affiliated networks and militias, and watch to make sure that they do not coalesce into a successor to the threat posed by al Qaeda at its zenith. The tactics used in Benghazi resemble those used by al Qaeda, but, smaller in scope and scale, and mainly threaten our to our interests and assets overseas. Our diplomatic presence in other countries has always served us well when it's open and engaging, but, like any other deployment of U.S. national power, incurs a certain degree of necessary risk. Withdrawing from the world is every bit as implausible as treating every militia as if it is al Qaeda.